A pallid figure crouches in the night, his long limbs bent like an albino spider. Standing in the rubble of an abandoned construction site, his eyes are black as he looks at the camera and raps, accusing a nameless third party of false drug-, gun-, and gang-related braggadocio. “You say you've got them guns, but I've never seen you bang,” he raps. “You say you've got them drugs, but I've never seen you slang.”
The creepy, lo-fi video borrows from the aesthetic of filmmaker Harmony Korine. It's digital footage recorded from a VHS tape, and at times you can see the screen literally being rewound.
The overall effect is profoundly unsettling, as if perhaps the unidentified addressee is bound and gagged off-screen.
The rapper is Bones, he is 19 years old, and this video for “Dirt” epitomizes his oft-terrifying, oft-compelling, rapidly growing body of work.
Since early 2012, Bones has released hundreds of these songs, which rarely crack 2½ minutes. His music videos tend to be like this one, grainy and distorted, and his rhymes recall 1990s gangster rap and horrorcore — drugs, women, bling, violence, luxury vehicles — right down to referencing pagers and gold rope chains.
Think early Three 6 Mafia and No Limit crossed with the score of John Carpenter's Halloween.
As anachronistic rap styles rise in popularity (see the work of Joey Bada$$, or A$AP Nast's recent song “Trillmatic”), Bones has built a devoted fan base. His videos all have more than 10,000 views; his Twitter timeline is full of retweets from fans singing his praises along with that of Team Sesh, his loose collective of rappers, producers and photographers. One fan in Russia even tattooed Bones' lyrics on his chest. Yet almost nothing has been written about him.
Turns out he's not hard to track down, and after trading a few emails (he writes in all caps), he agrees to meet at the Burbank home of his older brother, Elliott.
When Bones emerges, he's dressed almost entirely in black. He's wiry and ghostly white, with jet-black, shoulder-length hair, which he wears pinned up, and dark, almost vacant eyes — think Yelawolf meets the teen behind the VHS camera in American Beauty.
Speaking from the brick patio in the back of the house, Bones presents much like the man in the video: intense, direct, slightly soft-spoken. Though he's initially guarded, he loosens up quickly, eventually rolling and lighting a blunt.
He unspools his story: Born Elmo Kennedy O'Connor, he's a native of Muir Beach, whose mother designed clothes and whose father was a photographer and web designer. (His grandfather was actor Robert Culp.)
When he was 7, the family moved to Howell, Mich., a rural and predominately white city with a population of a little less than 10,000. “My high school was, like, skinheads, rebel flags and trucks,” Bones says.
But that didn't deter him from recording raps in grade school and putting them up on his MySpace page, or from dressing like his favorite rappers. Timberlands, velour suits, faux bling and Bape sneakers — if it was hot, he had it.
He became a devotee of hardcore rap early: He was enamored with Louisiana-based rap labels No Limit and Cash Money before kindergarten. These '90s records were heavy on graphic violence and profanity.
He also watched horror films such as The Exorcist, which might account for the pervasive eeriness in his music.
Meanwhile, he hated school and essentially refused to do his work. “Teachers wouldn't give me assignments because it would just be a waste of paper,” Bones says.
So he dropped out of high school at 16 and moved in with his brother, who had already fled to Los Angeles. (Elliott O'Connor, who works in independent artist development, now doubles as Bones' manager.)
Shortly after arriving in L.A., Bones was hired to direct music videos, working with buzzed-about, Miami-based rap group Raider Klan after meeting L.A. member Eddy Baker. During Coachella last year, several members of the Raider Klan stayed with the brothers, and Bones regularly performs and records with former Raider Klan member Xavier Wulf.
With his brother supporting him, Bones also became very serious about making music. In fact, he seemingly does little else; he doesn't even have a driver's license, relying on his brother or girlfriend for rides. (Both brothers say their parents also support Bones' decision to pursue rap.)
Bones self-released his first album, 2012's White Rapper, under the short-lived sobriquet That Kid. Bones and his brother say major labels showed interest, but they prefer not to name names.
According to Bones, the interested parties wanted him to be their “white rapper,” an artist along the lines of Mac Miller and Machine Gun Kelly. But Bones wasn't interested in being remade.
Really, it's difficult to imagine him on a big label. His strange, singular aesthetic makes him interesting. It's not so much that he's describing harrowing experiences that actually happened to him — he doesn't own a gun and has never sold drugs — but that he has created a creepy and unnerving world, which he fully inhabits in his songs.
Still, not all that's frightening is fictitious. Bones does carry a switchblade and enjoys smoking blunts in graveyards, both of which he raps about incessantly.
“It's really quiet over there,” he says of a nearby graveyard. “We just go to hang out and watch it get really dark. There's a bunch of crypts and fountains. It's beautiful.”
While he's making music, Bones smokes blunts constantly, and the floor of his in-house studio has mounds and mounds of tobacco he's removed from Backwoods cigars to replace with weed.
He works on old recording equipment, much of it inherited from Elliott's wife or from his uncle, a vocal coach for artists including Justin Timberlake.
The beats Bones uses come gratis from nascent producers who admire his work, almost all of them teenagers who live in countries like Italy and Russia. He hasn't met them in person but video chats with them regularly to see how they're doing.
As for his videos, he directs while Elliott shoots using a bulky, '90s-era video camera that uses Hi8 tapes — the very same camera his family once used to shoot home movies.
Bones then edits manually, plugging the camera into a TV, pushing the camera's rewind and fast-forward buttons and twisting the colored cables that connect the two to manipulate the picture.
“It makes [the videos] look so shitty,” he explains. “I just like the way it looks.”
He posts the videos to YouTube but won't accept ads on them. He also refuses to sell his music digitally, and thus all of his music to date has been free.
This anti-commercial strategy works for now — if only thanks to his brother's financial support — and it has almost certainly helped to grow his fan base.
Many musicians pledge allegiance to the underground while secretly hoping to sign a big contract, but Bones seems to mean what he says.
His future looks promising. He briefly toured California, Arizona and Texas over the summer, and more shows are in the works. He recently released an album — his seventh this year — with underground rapper Na$ty Matt, called Underground Gods, and is in talks to collaborate with Nick Melons and Shlohmo of burgeoning L.A. music collective WeDidIt.
In the future, though, “I'm not going to say I won't [ever sell my music],” Bones eventually admits. For now, he'd like to release his music on a cassette tape. He might charge for that.